Belarus: The Conflict at Black Red White in Brest continues

Black Red White is the largest furniture producer / importer in Poland, with a 20% share of the Polish furniture market. There are 20 subsidiary companies in Black Red White and 9 additional companies registered abroad in Ukraine, Belarus, Slovakia, Russia and Bosnia and Hercegovina. Its products are sold in over 50 countries and the company employs over 14,500 workers.

The following article, about a labour conflict in Belarus, was published on the site of the Russian section of the IWA, KRAS.

The conflict between the workers of Shop №5 and management have made the pages of the "Brest Newspaper". A group of workers sent in a complaining letter to the editors of the paper, describing the history of the conflict. The people who wrote this letter have already resigned because the company's lack of action concerning their demands and because of the harrassment they suffered from the shop management. On April 30, "Brest Newspaper" published the article "A black stain on Black Red White". In response to this, we received the article "Black Red White - a branch of Belarussian reality" which was published on the site of the Russian section of the IWA (http://aitrus.info/node/796): it was read by journalists, workers and even the deeply nervous management.

In April 2010 the management decided to change the way of paying for labour from the "salary plus bonus" system to one based on the number of orders. This was connected with the changing conjuncture and increased demand for furniture. That is, when it is convenient for the managers, they change the work conditions in a way beneficial to them, and, as usual, at the workers' expense.

The management of the shop used deceit and violated the Labour Code. Firstly, they did not adhere to the notification period for changing work conditions. Secondly, nobody told the workers what the future prices would be and they blatantly lied to them that they would remain at the 2008 level. At the end of Feburary, the workers saw the official prices, which were significantly different than in 2008. The management refused to negotiate and behaved quite rudely. The workers appealed to the Head of the Department of Labour and Social Protection in Brest. They sent specialists in social protection to the firm who exposed violations of the law and ordered the company to withdraw the decree changing the conditions.

The conflict entered a new phrase. It was not the first time that the management had had a visit from the social protection agencies. Mostly this happened when individual workers had complained. Then these workers were driven to resign. But here was a collective statement. Repression would have to be used against dozens of people. It became the norm not to give bonuses. Such repression was apparently santioned by the company.

There were also problems with regulating the temperature at the shop which led the workers not to follow certain safety norms. (Wearing the respirator in 20-40 degree temperature is like being in a gas chamber.) The clocks were also removed so that workers couldn't see when their break or lunch had finished and of course people lost their bonuses for coming back late from break.

As could be expected, the social protection agency could not fix things in the shop. In the end, 14 experienced workers were dismissed and the story was sent to the newspaper. The editors were afraid to print the workers' letter and went to the company to get their comments. The cynical management pretended not to know what was going on at their own company. They also clatimed that there were no problems in the other shops. Another manager went even further, claiming that the management tries to jelp everybody and that they have friendly relations with the workers: there are football matches and fishing tournaments. The workers all know that the football players and fishermen have a special relation with company management. So these are probably the friendly relationships they were talking about.

The article caused a reaction from the management. The manager of the shop was transfered to another one. They started to visit the plant and organize constant meetings with engineers which oversaw the protection of the workers. There were hot debates over working conditions at these meetings. The 2008 prices were restored. They announced that salaries would not be lower. The managers had long claimed that the wages were pegged to the dollar. In 2009, the Belarussian rouble was devalued 20%, which wiped out the savings of many. Our salaries had been 500 dollars but then became 350. The price for furniture increased, there were more warehouses but there was no pay raise in sight.

The publication of the workers' artilce forced the management to give partial concessions to the workers. It is serious to keep up prestige but one can also return to the old methods. And if the workers cannot unite in a union which is equal for all and fight togther, then they will be neutralized individually. This small example is proof that collective action can get results, however modest.

There are lots of these types of companies in the special economic zone in Brest where workers get low salaries, combined with rude management who know no limits. We hope that all this can encourage workers to start real resistance, not just on paper.

Workers from Shop № 5

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